By Bill Parry
While the city Department of Homeless Services was planning last week to make two Queens homeless shelters permanent, one lawmaker was taking them to court.
State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court Nov. 3 in order to make the agency, and the city, more transparent in the case of one of the shelters, the Westway Motel in East Elmhurst.
DHS angered residents and area officials by not giving prior notice when it began settling homeless families at the Westway, and at the former Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst last summer on a six-month emergency basis. Now with the short-term contracts expiring beginning in December, the agency will hold public hearings as it seeks to make the arrangements permanent.
“To continue to meet our moral and legal obligations to shelter families with children, all shelters that have opened under the emergency declaration will have to undergo a procurement process,” a DHS spokesman said.
In filing her lawsuit, Simotas accuses DHS of creating an artificial emergency to evade proper siting and procurement procedures. She also contended the agency has been “manipulating” the emergency shelter process to avoid dealing with the community.
In July, Simotas, U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Height), state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) and City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) sent joint letters to DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor demanding information required by the city Procurement Policy Board rules.
Taylor never answered the letters, the suit claims. Without the information the leaders could not inform their constituents how the proposed plan would affect the surrounding neighborhoods and advocate for the families that occupy Westway Motel, at 71-11 Astoria Blvd., court papers show.
“Since day one, we have asked the city and the Department of Homeless Services to be transparent and responsive to concerns of our communities regarding the conversion of the Westway Motor Inn into a permanent homeless shelter,” Crowley said. “Government works best when we involve the members of our community, especially in any decision that will significantly impact their neighborhoods. As we continue to work to address homelessness in New York City, it is important that we don’t lose sight of our responsibilities to the people we represent. Assemblywoman Simotas is making sure of that and I look forward to working with her and our local elected officials to ensure the voices of our communities aren’t ignored.”
The lawsuit maintains that “emergency conditions” exist when there is an unforeseen danger to life, safety, property or necessary service. The lawsuit point out that in 2013, the number of homeless people sleeping each night in the city shelter system surpassed 50,000 people for the first time since modern homelessness emerged three decades ago. More children and adults are homeless now in New York City than at any time since the Great Depression.
Clearly, the rise of the number of homeless families in the city was not “unforeseen” the suit claims.
“The lawsuit seeks basic information that should have been made public months ago, as part of an open and transparent process that afforded an opportunity for community input into the expansion at Westway,” Peralta said.
A DHS spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation but did say, “Our families with children deserve compassion and assistance rebuilding their lives.”
Meanwhile, the city’s procurement process for the Boulevard Family Residence, in the old Pan American Hotel at 79-00 Queens Blvd., began this week with a public hearing. The process will begin for the Westway Motel next month.